Home » We fact checked Peter Dutton on Scott Morrison’s travel during the pandemic. Here’s what we found

We fact checked Peter Dutton on Scott Morrison’s travel during the pandemic. Here’s what we found

The claim

It didn’t take long after Anthony Albanese won office in 2022 for the Coalition to begin attacking the prime minister over his international travel. It’s a line of attack that has only continued.

In an interview with the Seven Network’s Sunrise program, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton accused Mr Albanese of being “on a mission to circumnavigate the globe as many times as he can while you’re paying for it”.

Host Natalie Barr pushed back, arguing Mr Albanese had travelled “about the same amount of miles” and taken “the same number of flights” as his Coalition predecessor.

“Well, Scott Morrison didn’t go away during the time when he was needed — that was over a period of COVID,” Mr Dutton responded.

Is that correct? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Mr Dutton’s claim is spin.

Mr Morrison did not leave the country for hundreds of days during the first two years of the pandemic.

However, he did make several trips overseas when various parts of the country were experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19, including one trip in September 2021 when NSW and Victoria were enduring prolonged lockdowns.

Some experts contacted by Fact Check expressed a view that these were times Mr Morrison “was needed” in Australia.

For his part, Mr Dutton has argued that events such as the cost-of-living crisis and a recent High Court ruling on immigration detention constitute sufficient grounds for a prime minister to avoid international travel.

Mr Morrison did travel overseas during the pandemic, but was the then-prime minister “needed” in the country or not?(Reuters: Eugene Hoshiko/Pool)

Importantly, the long stretches during which Mr Morrison remained in Australia coincided with periods when international travel was extremely curtailed.

Restrictions in other countries made crossing borders more difficult, and the international summits Mr Morrison had attended the year before were being conducted virtually.

Indeed, compared to Mr Morrison, other world leaders such as the USA’s Donald Trump, the UK’s Boris Johnson and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern spent similar or longer periods within their own borders during the pandemic.

The COVID period

Experts told Fact Check there was no standard definition of when the COVID-19 period began.

The World Health Organisation first labelled the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020, and declared a pandemic on March 11.

World Health Organisation member sitting on a panel with microphones in front of them.

The WHO didn’t refer to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus as a pandemic until March 2020, but it was recognised as an emergency much earlier.(Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Epidemiologist Michael Toole, an associate principal research fellow at the Burnet Institute, said the “acute” phase of the pandemic began in Australia when the country recorded its first case, and ended in “March 2022 when the huge summer wave subsided”.

Australia documented its first cases of COVID-19 on January 25, 2020.

Cases reached their peak on January 14, 2022, when the country recorded a 7-day moving average of around 109,000 new cases during the first wave of the Omicron variant, which bottomed out at the end of February.

Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, suggested focusing on the period between when Australia closed its international borders and the month after it reopened them, to account for the impact of the reopening on community transmission.

Australia’s borders were closed to non-citizens and non-residents for roughly two years, from March 20, 2020, until February 21, 2022.

For the purposes of this analysis, Fact Check considers the critical phase of the pandemic in Australia to run from January 25, 2020, when cases were first detected, to the end of March 2022, shortly after borders reopened.

Scott Morrison’s travel

Scott and Jenny Morrison board a jet.

When did Scott Morrison travel during the pandemic?(AAP: Joel Carrett)

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s annual reports contain information on the international travel of prime ministers.

Using these documents alongside media reports and official transcripts, Fact Check has previously collated the details of international trips taken by various prime ministers, including Mr Morrison.

The data shows that Mr Morrison took 22 trips in total from when he became prime minister in August 2018.

Notably, five of these trips fell within the period between January 2020 and March 2022.

Destination(s)

Departure date

Return date

Japan

16/11/2020

18/11/2020

New Zealand

30/05/2021

31/05/2021

Singapore, the United Kingdom and France

10/06/2021

17/06/2021

United States

20/09/2021

26/09/2021

Italy and the United Kingdom

28/10/2021

4/11/2021

During that time, Mr Morrison did not travel for 296 days after the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Australia, until he departed for a two-day trip to Japan on November 16, 2020.

After his return, Mr Morrison spent another 193 days in Australia before leaving for his second trip, to New Zealand, on May 30, 2021.

These were the then-prime minister’s longest periods without travelling outside Australia during the critical COVID-19 period.

Problems to stay home for?

Anthony Albanese gives a thumbs up in front of an Air Force jet.

Mr Dutton invoked domestic issues as a reason Mr Albanese should not travel.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

On several occasions, Mr Dutton has invoked the need to deal with domestic issues as a reason Mr Albanese should stay in the country.

On November 16, while Mr Albanese was in the US to attend the 2023 APEC summit, Mr Dutton told 2GB’s Ray Hadley in a discussion about a recent High Court decision that led to the release of immigration detainees from indefinite detention: “I just can’t believe that the prime minister’s jumped on a plane and gone overseas again, when I think he should have stayed here to sort this mess out.”

The fact is I just don’t think the prime minister’s got a more important job than keeping Australians safe and he’s nowhere to be seen.”

He added: “I just think it sends exactly the wrong message when he should be here dealing with these problems and giving people assurance and the leadership that they require.”

The next day, Mr Dutton said that “the prime minister should deal with these domestic priorities before he goes overseas on yet another trip”.

And in his November 21 Sunrise interview, Mr Dutton said the prime minister “needs to be at home … to deal with these significant issues: the High Court issue, cost of living, families are under all sorts of pressures.”

Given Mr Dutton’s emphasis on these domestic issues, Fact Check will consider some of the events that were occurring at the time of Mr Morrison’s overseas trips.

So, when was the PM ‘needed’?

To give a sense of what was happening in Australia at the time of Mr Morrison’s five trips, Fact Check has graphed them against data compiled by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government for its Coronavirus Government Policy Response Tracker.

As explained in a previous fact check, the tracker’s “stringency index” awards each country an overall score from 0-100 to indicate the increasing severity of pandemic restrictions based on indicators for nine policy areas; for example, school closures, travel restrictions or stay-at-home requirements.

The index does not necessarily reflect nationwide restrictions; rather, it shows the most severe level of restrictions in place anywhere in the country.

Between Australia closing its borders on March 19, 2020, and the end of March 2022, the highest the index ever reached was 78.24. Its lowest point was 30.09 (for vaccinated individuals only).

During Mr Morrison’s visit to Japan in November 2020, the index was at 64.35.

On the day the prime minister left for Japan, South Australia announced restrictions on gatherings, and as he returned two days later, the state announced it was re-introducing tighter restrictions largely barring people from leaving home.

Mr Morrison set off on his next trip, to New Zealand, on May 30, 2021, two days after stay-at-home restrictions were re-imposed in Victoria.

Around 270 exposure sites were recorded across the state on the day of his departure, while the stringency index stood at 75.46.

Mr Morrison subsequently travelled to Singapore, the UK and France, beginning his trip on June 10, the day Victoria’s stay-at-home restrictions were lifted.

Various other restrictions on travel, gatherings and face coverings still applied, however, with the stringency index falling from 71.76 to 53.24 the following day.

Several months later, when Mr Morrison embarked on a trip to the United States on September 20, Australia’s two most populous states, NSW and Victoria, were subject to stay-at-home orders due to a major outbreak of the Delta variant.

This was before those states had reached the 70 per cent double-dose vaccination target required for the easing of restrictions on movement, hospitality and gatherings.

four men walking down a hallway

Mr Morrison travelled to the USA in September 2021 during Australia’s then-largest outbreak of coronavirus.(AP Photo: Evan Vucci)

At the beginning of that trip, the moving average of new cases across the country stood at 1,719 and the stringency index at 71.76.

Mr Morrison’s final jaunt, to Italy and the UK, occurred in late October 2021, after the 80 per cent double-dose target for easing restrictions had been reached in NSWVictoria reached the target on October 31.

During that trip, the stringency index fell to 57.87 for those who had been double vaccinated.

Was there anywhere to travel?

A screen shows some participants of the virtual G20 meeting, hosted by Saudi Arabia.

Many international summits became virtual during the pandemic.(AP: Yves Herman)

While Mr Dutton criticised Mr Albanese’s supposed penchant for international travel by highlighting times when Mr Morrison had remained in Australia, experts said the effect of the pandemic meant the two leaders’ records could not be readily compared.

Stephen Mills, an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences and a former speechwriter for former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, told Fact Check in an email that international travel during the pandemic was not only “impossible due to border closures” but also “less necessary given the cancellation of summits and probably … unwelcome at the receiving end due to pandemic fears”.

Michael de Percy, a senior lecturer at the University of Canberra’s School of Politics, Economics and Society, told Fact Check that the pandemic should be taken into account when comparing quantitative measures of prime ministerial travel.

“If you were going to compare time overseas, then you would have to adjust for the pandemic,” he said.

Flavia Bellieni Zimmerman, a lecturer in international relations in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia, concurred:

“There was less need and ability for travel during that period, with many countries globally under lockdown and with travel bans in place. Most world leaders reverted meetings to teleconferencing, and travel was highly restricted.”

Indeed, the G20G7, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), East Asia Summit (EAS) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit were all held virtually in 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

The previous year Mr Morrison had attended each of these meetings in person, with the exception of APEC, which was cancelled by host nation Chile. (He did, however, attend the 2018 summit.)

The EAS and PIF both remained virtual in 2021, while the G7 and G20 were held in person and attended by Mr Morrison.

(That year’s UNGA was also in person; although Mr Morrison did not personally attend, at the time he was in New York, where the summit was held.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Mr Morrison was not the only world leader whose international travel was curtailed during the pandemic.

An analysis conducted by Fact Check of other international leaders’ travel histories taken from official government accounts shows similar travel patterns over the same roughly two-year pandemic period, with former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and former US president Donald Trump all barely venturing beyond their own borders.

What the experts say

Nancy Baxter, the head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, told Fact Check in an email that September 2021, when Mr Morrison took his trip to the US, was “clearly [a time] of crisis in Australia related to the pandemic — given the lockdowns affecting a large proportion of the population”.

“It is unclear that Scott Morrison’s trips were germane to the management of the pandemic at this time — were there any National Cabinet meetings missed or delayed because of his absence? I would say that his travelling when so many were unable to [was] not great leadership.”

Dr Bellieni Zimmerman agreed with Professor Baxter: “International travel in the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, in my view, should have been avoided, and [was] a sign of poor leadership by the Morrison administration.”

“As the prime minister during the time of the worst health crisis in our country it is a sign of leadership to set the standards needed to control the pandemic and be an inspiration to the Australian people,” she said.

Dr Mills said Mr Dutton’s comments were “accurate only if we accept his definition of “the time when he was needed”.

Referring to Mr Morrison’s well-publicised personal holiday to Hawaii during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, Dr Mills said Mr Dutton was seeking to “erase the bushfire travel by referring to COVID non-travel”.

But Dr de Percy noted that Mr Morrison’s travel to the US in September 2021, for example, coincided with the announcement of the AUKUS agreement.

Australia, the US and the UK signed the defence pact on September 16, four days before Mr Morrison’s trip.

“[It’s] arguably Australia’s most important defence arrangement and in my view our only tangible defence deterrent,” Dr de Percy told Fact Check in an email.

He added that the qualitative issues surrounding prime ministerial travel were, in his view, more important than simply comparing the numbers of trips.

“A better comparison [between Mr Albanese and Mr Morrison’s international travel] is the bushfire-Hawaii debacle — although constitutionally not Morrison’s responsibility, the ‘optics’ were key to the political fallout,” he said.

“If you are going to compare the quantity of travel … it doesn’t refute the optics issue,” he said, citing Mr Albanese’s reluctance to discuss domestic issues while overseas as a contributing factor in the public’s perception of his travel.

Principal researcher: Matt Martino, RMIT ABC Fact Check Managing Editor

martino.matt@abc.net.au

Sources